Two Worlds, Side by Side: ABA Journal & Letter from Law School

I received a letter from my law school subtly informing me that my name would be placed on “the permanent donor wall located near the entrance” if I gave a gift or commitment of $5,000.

The same day, the ABA Journal published Bill Henderson’s article titled, “The Law School Bubble: How Long Will It Last if Law Grads Can’t Pay the Bills?” in which the author writes in a section called, “ENDGAME”:

“Given the likelihood of some form of curb in federal student lending, there are gut-wrenching times ahead for law schools—even those that continue to enjoy a surplus of applicants … [T]he U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges a shortage of [doctors and dentists] and a growing glut of lawyers. Further, the Bureau projects that these shortages and surpluses will continue over the next decade.”

I don’t bring this up to attack my law school specifically—mine’s not alone in asking for alumni donations—and it’s no secret that my dollars are better spent on rent, groceries, and Screaming Trees’ discography than to have my name placed on a wall for vanity’s sake. Rather, I wonder aloud if lawyers who do have the disposable income and the class/professional/generational identity will gift their law schools money after reading Henderson’s argument that law schools are over-enrolled, overbuilt, yet devouring excessive amounts of federal debt money nonetheless.

I have four thoughts on Henderson’s article.

(1)  The law graduate surplus is not new. Here’s how Henderson characterizes the situation:

“Youthful overoptimism, bleak job prospects for college grads and the entry of several more universities and for-profit businesses into the legal education business are some of the root causes for the supply-and-demand imbalance in entry-level lawyers.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics wrote in 1996:

“During the 1970s, the annual number of law school graduates more than doubled, outpacing the rapid growth of jobs. Growth in the yearly number of law school graduates tapered off during the 1980s, but again increased in the early 1990s. The high number of graduates will strain the economy’s capacity to absorb them.”

I repeat this point once again because (a) it still shocks me, and (b) it not only illustrates the scope of the law school bubble, but it also speaks to the ABA’s carelessness. Although I wrote last week that the Association’s Section of Legal Education’s accreditation system doesn’t cause tuition hikes, that doesn’t mean it’s blameless for the situation the profession is now in. The ABA was in the best position to inform the public that there were too many law graduates and it could’ve encouraged existing law schools to taper enrollments while dissuading universities from initiating new programs on frivolous justifications. It may’ve even been able to hamper enrollments by requiring more undergraduate prerequisites the way medical and dental schools do. These steps might not’ve worked, but contrast them to the ABA’s current ideology, which to this day has been to encourage access for anyone at any cost.

Now, the costs are coming in, and worse, otherwise excellent economists tell us that the ABA is greedily engineering a lawyer shortage contrary to the evidence. Catastrophe and ignorance do not combine for effective solutions, and the ABA will now have to manage both.

(2)  Speaking of the ABA, Henderson hints at the question that’s been slowly festering: Will the ABA, ED, and Congress throw indebted law grads under the bus?

“Although IBR may be viewed as a boon to law students, law school graduates may view it differently—15 percent of their monthly income paid over more than half of their career span is a severe burden, especially if the sought-after gains in earning power fail to materialize…”

“Still, scrutiny by the scamblogger movement and legal and mainstream media may speed up the process. One plausible outcome has the Education Department using its accreditation authority to force law schools to demonstrate, as a condition of receiving federal loan money, a minimum threshold of employability and income upon graduation.”

I’m more in the boon category than Henderson. When I enrolled, law school debtors had to make the monthly payments or watch the interest capitalize onto principal forever, so I still see IBR as better than the world without it. Plus, it’s now 10 percent of disposable income, and I’m guessing that a lot of people who have a few kids will see their monthly payments drop to the level of a utility bill they don’t discuss. They’ll worry about the income tax issues later, but that’s a long way off and there is an insolvency exclusion in the tax code.

Still, his is a fair point: there is no justice in forcing someone to pay a debt for something they cannot directly use. The whole point of student debt is to increase human capital more quickly so the economy can benefit from it sooner. If there is little human capital created or it’s unnecessary, then it’s morally wrong to force people to pay a cent for their degrees. Such is the risk of making unsecured loans.

However, look at Henderson’s prediction of ED more rigorously regulating law schools. What does this do for “Andrea,” the twice laid-off 2009 law school graduate the article uses to illustrate the problem? Sure, fewer law grads in the future shrinks the bottleneck and increases the present value of her law degree, but even if that were to happen tomorrow, are we really supposed to believe that lawyer salaries will rise to the point that she’s making payments on a 25-year monthly plan and not on IBR? It’s unlikely to happen, which is why we should be leery of partial fixes. Unfortunately, I doubt the ABA will start advocating for those it’s effectively abandoned. It should.

(3)  Speaking of solutions, we have a law school dean who does not like them:

“Mark Grunewald, interim dean of the law school at Washington and Lee University, thinks any blanket restrictions on federal student lending would be disastrous and unfair. ‘There are real differences among prospective law students’ economic circumstances, and new blanket restrictions on lending could hurt those most in need of financial support,’ he says. ‘It’s also unclear what the legal employment market might look like after a general economic recovery. Market forces may ultimately prove to be a better corrective.’”

Washington and Lee’s tuition has grown 35 percent over the inflation rate since 2004, above $40,000. Three years then buys two years today with no discernable increase in quality. Between 2004 and 2010, its full-time student-faculty ratio dropped roughly 18 percent to 9.5. Washington and Lee could easily provide cheaper legal educations without risking its accreditation, but it chooses not to. If Dean Grunewald were serious about ensuring access, he could persuade W&L’s Board of Trustees to invest in its students by giving them free legal educations conditioned on them paying 10 percent of their salaries back for 10 years. If this causes Washington and Lee to lose money or close, so be it. It’s not the federal government’s problem if a law school doesn’t increase human capital.

But the part that riles me is the “blanket restrictions on federal student lending” being “disastrous and unfair.” Does Dean Grunewald also think the blanket restriction on discharging student debt is “disastrous and unfair”? I bet not.

(4)  Henderson writes:

“Unless the government’s actuarial assumptions on student loan repayments turn out to be correct, federal funding of higher education is on a collision course with the federal deficit.”

It’s worse than this: the government knows its actuarial assumptions are wrong. The Congressional Budget Office directly told Congress that its accrual accounting methodology overstated the revenue of student loans, and when it used fair-value accounting it found the government loses 12¢ on the dollar on average over the next decade. This is without including IBR in the mix, so we’re looking at somewhere around $120 billion in losses on top of the drain on the economy that comes from zombie-debtors making good on bad debts rather than spending on houses and kids toys.

The CBO adds:

“The costs of income-contingent repayment, or of loan forgiveness or forbearance, are generally higher on a fair-value basis than under [accrual] accounting, because borrowers are more likely to take advantage of those opportunities in economic downturns, when the value of the forgone payments is greatest. (Page XI)”

I hope the student debt write-down Henderson writes about isn’t far off, but until then our lawyers are left with two worlds, side by side. In the one hand, the dean’s letter and the name on the wall near the door? Or in the other, Bill Henderson’s shameful law school debt factories?

I choose Screaming Trees.

(Oh, and this is my 200th post. Yay!)

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